I described seeing Olive Senior posing with my books, and especially The Boy from Willow Bend, at the Allioagana lit fest in Montserrat, in 2019, (I wasn’t there, the picture was posted or sent to me), as a full circle moment. Let me tell you why.
Olive Senior made me cry. It wasn’t a full on bawling session but I teared up. It was during a one-on-one during my first international workshop – the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute – which she facilitated. I was grateful for the opportunity, at the crossroads of having just concluded undergrad at the University of the West Indies and re-entering the world of work back home in Antigua-Barbuda where I feared my dreams would become subsumed by practicality. I don’t think I fully appreciated then what a privilege it was to have The Olive Senior, Commonwealth Award winning, critically acclaimed, beloved by writers and readers alike, Olive Senior as my first (thankfully not my last) international creative writing workshop facilitator. It was at a time in my life when I was so scared that I would have to settle for anything else but what I wanted to do which was write (coming from a small place with no blueprint for the writing career I wanted) and I needed to know that my writing had something that made it possible (even if I hadn’t yet figured out the how-to of it). I wanted to believe, I wanted to hear, that my writing was good; and her role was to show me how my writing could be better. I wanted a cue. And was maybe too foolish to understand that Mervyn Morris who was my mentor and teacher at UWI recommending me for the CFWSI, when I had no publications yet to my credit, and being in the room much less in one-on-ones with Olive, and being in the company of all the much more seasoned writers I was fortunate and intimidated to be in company with that summer was that cue. The honest feedback I received made me cry but it also sent me back to pack, and in that pack, with the tips I learned that summer, I found the beginnings of the story that would become The Boy from Willow Bend, my first book. I have such warm feelings about that whole summer, in and out of workshop, and appreciate the growth experience it was for me as a writer. Also, I coach and facilitate workshops now too and I understand how hard it is to tell someone the truth about their writing ESPECIALLY when you see potential in it.
This image is from a workshop cohort lime during the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute, University of Miami, 1995. Olive is seated, front and centre, and I am standing immediately behind her in black.
This image is from a luncheon at the Prime Minister’s Residence with participating writers during the BIM Literary Festival, Barbados, in 2016. Olive is standing front, in grey, left, and I am one level up and behind her, also in grey.
I wouldn’t meet Olive again until Barbados in 2016 (the workshop was in 1995). We were both invited authors at the BIM Lit Fest. We would be reading and participating in other activities and she was scheduled to lead a master class which I was a bit bummed I wouldn’t be able to take as I was scheduled to co-lead a workshop at the same time. I am shy by nature and battle imposter syndrome on the daily. So I did my whole I don’t know if you remember me thing. After all, it had been 21 years (back when I had just turned 22) with no contact in between. But not only did she remember me, she remembered Mervyn telling her that I was going to be a writer, which I hadn’t known before (that he saw that potential enough in me to share it with one of his peers). Her sharing that with me felt like a gift and if that was to be the bookend to our knowing, that would have been enough. But we did the obligatory selfie and then Olive Senior made me cry again. She shared that image with her social media network with what felt like a fond note in which she called me a mentor to others as she had been to me. That post is a keepsake.
I don’t know if she knows this but her mentoring of me continued informally on that trip. There are the nerves I get being in those spaces but she treated me like it was perfectly natural for me to be there as a peer. Mervyn was also there – I had happily reconnected with him a few years earlier at the Nature Island Literary Festival. My workshop co-lead Bernice McFadden was cool. I vibed with them and most others. There are always exceptions, and there were. But those discomforts didn’t overshadow the genuine companionableness I found with Olive and others. And in conversation with Olive, perfectly casual conversation to her no doubt, I sopped up everything she told me about the ebbs and flows of her own journey as a writer, as I considered the ebbs and flows of mine (even acknowledging that I am no Olive Senior, we had in common the nature of the ebbs and flows of the writing life and from her attitude to the journey I could learn a thing or two about adjusting my own attitude and expectations). I could also obviously stand to learn a thing or two about how she produces at such a high level with such seeming effortlessness and frequency -case in point the Pandemic Poems book she managed to produce while some of us have been spinning in circles. I am some of us, some of us is me. And when I saw the book announcement, I was reminded of why she is The Olive Senior.
But she is also just Olive. And I got to hang with Olive on our third encounter in 2019 when she had a day’s layover in Antigua, and she and I and Barbara Arrindell, a local author and bookseller and my friend, whom she had recently met at Alliougana in Montserrat limed between her arrival and departure. We had emailed and I may have worked up the courage to ask her for a recommendation a time or two in between (she was always gracious), but we had never really socialized as just people. Which we did over lunch and a short island tour that day. I feel like I got to see another side of her – although people don’t really have sides, do they; let’s say, I got to see more of her, what she thinks about things and how she thinks about things. But mostly just be which is the realest form of interaction, ent it. Anyway I had fun that day and I hope she did too. And while we’re not day to day email buddies, we’ve kept in touch.
Recently, Olive reached out to find out how she could support Wadadli Pen and became one of the first patrons to come on board for the 2021 season. She didn’t tell me in the midst of all of this that her investiture was coming up because, hello, way to bury the lead, Olive!
Olive will serve as Poet Laureate from 2021 to 2024. The Poet Laureate programme is a signature programe of the National Library Service of Jamaica. It is easily the highest recognition a nation can give to a writer and an opportunity for the writer to serve, to the benefit of other budding writers and literary arts in the country generally. In accepting, Olive described it, at the investiture ceremony, as both an honour and a great responsibility. Kudos to Jamaica for this initiative and to whoever is responsible for tapping Olive for the role.
I know, because I’ve seen the social media chatter, that people have been championing her for the role for a while because the love is real for Ms. Senior, for her writing, which is sharp and nuanced – just check out stories like The Boy who loved Ice Cream – but also for being her unproblematic self (and by unproblematic I don’t mean bland, at all, she’s soft spoken but steely, don’t get it twisted, and, it has been my experience, in spite of the fact that she made me cry, kind; I mean, she’s a real one). She carries Jamaica in her spirit, and particularly the rural Jamaica she grew up in, which is as she said “embedded in her heart beat”. They really couldn’t have picked a more Jamaican Jamaican from the esteemed writers of a culture that has produced so many great writers. I know Olive hasn’t always felt the love -especially in terms of availability of her books in local bookstores, or the lack thereof, which she has spoken about on social media. I hope she’s feeling the love fully in this moment.
Fun fact, Ms. Olive’s collaborator on both her children’s book, Laura James, is of Antiguan-Barbudan descent …which is why her Boonoonoonous Hair is in the running for the #readAntiguaBarbuda 2021 readers choice book of the year initiative. Don’t forget to vote.
I couldn’t be happier for Olive the Senior. I know she’s going to do great things in the role and I love that at my mama’s age she continues to demonstrate the full scope of a writers’ life fully lived. I stay watching and learning.
My next goal is to get a one-on-one interview with her for the blog; think she’ll go for it?
As with all content (words, images, other) on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, With Grace, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, and The Jungle Outside). All Rights Reserved. You can also subscribe to and/or follow the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, with credit, are okay, lifting whole content (articles, images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. Respect copyright.